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Systematic literature searching

A guide to the search process for a systematic literature search

One to one appointments

Faculty librarians for Health and Medicine are available to meet staff and students for one to one appointments to discuss:

  • literature searching
  • using databases
  • using reference management software, such as EndNote. 

Appointments can be over the phone or online using Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

You will receive an initial confirmation email to your Lancaster University email address. This will be followed up with an email specifying room details, or a link to the online meeting. It may be possible to arrange a meeting outside of these times. Contact

We'd love to hear from you at any time with your feedback or success stories!

Systematic Review and Literature Searching Teams Channel

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This guide is aimed at postgraduates who are undertaking a systematic literature review or rapid review in health and medicine related fields, and need help with the literature searching process.

If you are from another discipline, this guide may still be useful to understand the process.

This is not a intended to be a substitute for guidance provided for specific review methodologies or evidence synthesis techniques, such as Cochrane systematic reviews, for which there is an official Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions. Chapter 4 relates to Searching for and selecting studies.

You may also wish to review the Systematic Review LibGuide which includes guidance and a pathway for researchers producing their first Systematic Literature Review.

The literature search process

diagram showing the search process cycleThis guide will help students and staff undertaking a thorough review of the literature, whether as part of a dissertation or for a systematic review. While many of the examples are drawn from health, medicine and psychology, the principles apply to all subjects.

The search process is not linear but iterative. You will return to earlier stages as you search, read and evaluate. However, a classic systematic review protocol states clearly the search strategy ahead of conducting the final search and screening of results. 

  • Define your question
  • Formulate the search topic and create an initial search strategy
  • Identify the databases to use
  • Conduct your search in key databases
  • Review and test your results, and revise your search
  • Expand your search to include grey literature and cited references
  • "Hand-search" key journals and websites
  • Manage your results with EndNote (or other bibliographic management software).
  • Screen the titles and abstracts of your results against your inclusion and exclusion criteria, such as relevance to the question, study type
  • Obtain full text for included studies/papers to appraise and extract the data from for analysis
  • Record your search strategy and what you have done throughout the process
  • Keep up-to-date with new literature on your topic

Literature searching refresher for health researchers

This video provides a demonstration of key skills for literature searching such as conducting keyword searches, using subject headings, combining search sets and managing references within databases and in EndNote.

Fast-forward to sections at these times:

0:36 What's new
1:52 OneSearch
7:10 Literature searching steps
8:14 Analytical tools
9:09 Formulating a search - boolean, search commands
15:36 Choosing sources - databases, subject guides
18:15 MEDLINE - advanced search demonstration
31:24 EMBASE - advanced search demonstrations

DHR 523 Systematic review: webinar video

More literature searching videos